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Zune is out of tune, for now

perspective's Scott Ard says Microsoft's first attempt at a digital music player still isn't ready for prime time.

perspective At the risk of being called an Apple fanboy, a Microsoft basher and a dog kicker, I gotta say the Zune does not impress me.

Microsoft recently sent an emissary to CNET with three Zunes to demonstrate Redmond's new offensive against the Apple-iPod juggernaut. While the Zune certainly has some interesting features--such as Wi-Fi capability and a decent-size screen for a front-pocket device--the overall theme of the day appeared to be that this should be considered a first-generation device that nails the basics and is easily expandable through software to learn new tricks.

Fair enough, except for two things: Hard drive-based music players have been around for a long time--since before Apple unveiled its first iPod five years ago. And Microsoft has an aircraft carrier stuffed with cash moored off its Redmond, Wash., campus that should allow it to fund a top notch, me-too device.

But in my brief hands-on with the Zune, I couldn't help but feel that this piece of hardware is just not ready for prime time. (Colleague James Kim's first impressions were more favorable.) Full disclosure: I did not listen to any of the songs that were loaded onto the demo models. Listening to one song without being able to immediately compare it with a competing device would not offer much insight into playback quality. So I just assume it does that well.

It appears very utilitarian and about as sexy as Newt Gingrich.

And I didn't get a chance to play with the Zune software--let's just assume that's also as good as market-leading iTunes. I'm talking here only about the hardware and the features (or lack thereof), which for many people is what led them to the iPod, the Zen or the iRiver in the first place.

Here are some initial impressions:

• I wouldn't say it looks like it was designed by an amateur (or did I just do exactly that?), but it certainly lacks a wow factor. Rather, it appears very utilitarian and about as sexy as Newt Gingrich. I initially thought it was a prototype--it felt like a block of plastic with an odd surface texture. I don't think many people will want to flash this at school or work, lest someone say, "Hey is that a Zune? Did you paint it yourself?"

• Zune comes in three colors: white, black and brown. Some people (who have likely only seen pictures) have said the brown appears to be the coolest color. .

• The ability to beam content from one device to another is interesting and actually speedy at about 10 to 15 seconds per song. But in its current implementation, it's very limited. For example, you can view what another Zune user is listening to and the other person can beam you the song (which can be played three times over three days before evaporating). However, you can't request a song that you see a nearby Zune owner listening to. That means if you spot another Zune user playing "My Humps" by the Black Eyed Peas, you need to yell across the train car: "Hey, ZuneRulez97, whoever you are, can you please beam 'My Humps' to MikesBrownZune?" In addition, the Zune has the potential to connect to a PC to enable wireless sync and file sharing, but Microsoft hasn't enabled that feature and maybe never will. Same goes for wireless Net access.

• The screen, at 3 inches, is a bit larger than the one on a video-capable iPod, at 2.5 inches. And having photos and videos play in landscape (which means rotating the Zune horizontally) gives it an edge over the iPod. But I found the screen to be somewhat dingy, especially compared with the latest iPods, which were brightened significantly from their predecessors. This could be an illusion because the Zune uses wallpaper backgrounds, while the iPod is black text on white. And I didn't have a chance to compare two similar photos and videos side by side. Nevertheless, the impression was that the Zune was noticeably dimmer than the iPod. (The 30GB Zune, by the way, will cost $249, the same price as the 30GB iPod.)

• The Zune does not support WMA DRM9. I wonder if you can donate all those songs purchased from Napster and Urge to charity and get a tax write-off.

I recall that when the Xbox first came out, many analysts said Microsoft finally released Version 1.0 of a product that didn't suck. Will they say that about the Zune? Zune hits store shelves on Tuesday. Go check one out and let me know if you agree with my early assessment. Even better, buy one and prove me wrong. I dare you.